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The Grinder is turning into a worthy descendant of Arrested Development

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The Grinder is keenly aware of how viewers talk about TV. The half-hour comedy returned from its holiday hiatus with Stew, having missed the first half of a season of "The Grinder," the show-within-the-show of the same name, asking, "Shouldn't an audience be able to join a show at any time?" His brother Dean explains how such a thing would seem forced, and bluntly recaps his entire story to prove his point — perfectly synopsizing the series for new viewers.

Welcome, the scene says with a wink, to the most unexpectedly meta show on network television.

If you're one such viewer just tuning in, the premise of the real The Grinder — the freshman half-hour comedy airing Tuesdays on Fox — or at least the arching joke the network pitched in the lead up to last fall's premiere, is that actor Dean Sanderson Jr. (Rob Lowe) has left his hit television show "The Grinder" in Los Angeles, and returned to his hometown of Boise, Idaho, where he now lives and works with his brother Stew, an actual lawyer played by Fred Savage, at the family's law firm. Think Odd Couple meets, let's say, Ed. Or if you didn't watch Ed, Welcome Back Kotter. Ambitious local abandons pursuit of dream career to find what he's been missing was waiting all along in his childhood neighborhood. No one is surprised when Dean falls for a woman working at the family law firm, and that she just happens to be immune to his charms. Anyway, you've seen this pap before. He's not a real lawyer, but he played one on TV! Will he pass the bar and win the hometown girl? It'll take a couple seasons to find out!

The most unexpectedly meta show on network television

Halfway through the season, that elevator pitch is superficially the same: Dean is still pining for his co-worker and illogically working legal cases. But the core of the show, like a stack of bland pancakes, has been gradually covered in a gooey, delicious syrup of self-aware humor that manages to tickle without turning smug.

This first episode back from hiatus, for example, has Justified and Deadwood actor Timothy Olyphant playing himself. Olyphant (the character) has replaced Dean on "The Grinder" as Rake Grinder, the brother of Dean's Mitch Grinder. Olyphant's also begun a relationship in Boise with Dean's hometown love interest. The conflict is familiar (rival steals everything the hero loves), but the absurdity of its construction is undeniable: Timothy Olyphant playing Timothy Olyphant playing Rake Grinder, the brother of Mitch Grinder played by Dean Sanderson Jr. played by Rob Lowe in a procedural that is a parody of a procedural within a sitcom that is a parody of a sitcom. And somehow it's never as arduous as it sounds.

In the episode in which Dean discovers he's been replaced by Olyphant, the actor has this conversation with "The Grinder" director Cliff Bemis (Jason Alexander), who'd like Dean to return for one episode to be killed off.

Cliff Bemis: Yes, the show's a hit. Yes, the critics love it. Yes, Olyphant has been embraced by the nation.

Dean: You didn't come all the way here to tell me that.

Cliff Bemis: Nope. I came here to tell you that none of that matters. What matters... is what the fans are saying on Twitter and other social media platforms.

Dean: The true barometer of success.

You watch The Grinder; The Grinder watches back. That could be catnip enough for critical praise; commenting on the daffiness of TV writing and production has been award flypaper for a handful of modern network shows, most recently 30 Rock. But The Grinder isn't as dispirited with the sitcom form as that show. While it ribs the form, The Grinder also takes celebrates what the form does best: have heart.

You watch The Grinder; The Grinder watches back

The second episode post-hiatus finally gives Stew a partner who sees this zany world for what it really is. A journalist, who claimed to be visiting to profile Stew, is actually researching a hack job at Dean's expense. Stew fails to protect Dean from the reporter, and when Dean sees the story — that calls both his acting and legal careers sham-worthy — he sobs. Not a sad sob, though. For Dean, all press is good press. Through tears of joy, Dean explains how the story paints Stew as a saint for putting up with Dean's hijinks. What sounds easy and ham-fisted is earned by its sheer unexpectedness, like a guarded friend opening up. With a splash of music and a couple tears rolling down Rob Lowe's never-aging face, the moment really clicks.

What elevates The Grinder is willingness to pull its punches, turning the expected into the unexpected, helping an audience trained to distrust the sitcom remember why they fell in love with this sappy brand of TV to begin with.

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